As people near retirement age, they enter the twilight years. Sometimes, they rebel against retirement. They want to keep working. They’re not interested in shuffling out of their office never to return. And if they’re in fact the owner of the workplace, conflicts often ensue. Those who have power rarely want to give up that power.
The United States is relatively young as a country. It is even younger as the so-called “leader of the free world.” But for at least three decades, reports have circulated that the American empire has entered its twilight years, perhaps even its dotage.
The U.S. government itself cautioned us to scale back our expectations in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter called on Americans to cut back on consumerism and adjust to an age of diminishing expectations. Then, after the Reagan rebound, we were warned by Yale professor Paul Kennedy of imperial overstretch in the late 1980s. The Clinton years saved us from bankruptcy and the George W. Bush administration again reasserted American power in the world.
But now, the United States has again sunk into economic malaise and the wars of the last decade have left the country badly bruised. Historian Alfred McCoy believes the U.S. empire won’t make it until 2025. Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung pulls the horizon a little closer to 2025. It’s also possible that the empire already ended and somebody forgot to make the announcement. In 2011, Standard and Poor’s removed the United States from its list of risk-free borrowers, putting us below Canada and Australia. That could very well have been the death knell.
Predicting the end of American empire is complicated by the fact that the United States is not a traditional empire. It does not try to maintain territorial control over distant lands (though many residents of Hawai’i and Guam might disagree). It doesn’t practice a straightforward policy of pillaging overseas possessions for their material wealth. It practices a form of consensual give-and-take with its allies in Europe and Asia.
But the American Goliath does straddle the globe militarily, with hundreds and hundreds of military bases and Special Forces operating in 71 countries. The United States remains number one in the dubious categories of overall military spending and overall military exports.
Economically, the United States attempts to use the size of its economy to negotiate favorable deals with smaller countries (think: NAFTA) and often defines its national security priorities by their proximity to valuable natural resources (think: oil). It wields disproportionate influence in international economic organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Culturally, Hollywood and the music industry and the television studios all set the standard for cool around the world. English is the world language, and the dollar (for now) is the world currency.
This is, in other words, an empire of consent. Other governments ask for our military bases (though often over the objections of their citizens). Other governments want to trade with the United States. No one makes people watch Avatar or Titanic, the top-grossing movies worldwide. No one forces consumers at gunpoint to eat at McDonald’s or drink Coca-Cola. It’s true that Washington does what it can to tilt the playing field - through export subsidies, diplomatic arm-twisting, and the occasional show of force. And it can be a very lonely world for those countries, like North Korea, that consistently defy the United States. But this still remains a much more complex set of relationships than Pax Romana or Pax Britannica.
However one defines U.S. power, though, a fundamental shift is clearly taking place in the world. China is slated to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy as early as 2016. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, many people already believe that China has done so. Indeed, if measured by purchasing power, China nosed past the United States a couple years ago.
It’s not just China. The other celebrated members of the BRICS - Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa - are more quietly building up their economic and geopolitical power. Then there’s MIST - Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey - another group of rising powers. The proliferation of other groupings - the Next 11, CIVETS - all testifies to the transformation of world power.
Meanwhile, the United States is behaving like a country desperately trying to maintain its edge. It has proclaimed a “Pacific pivot” even though it doesn’t have the resources to execute any significant shift from the Middle East to Asia. It has attempted to maintain unsustainable levels of military spending at a time of serious budget constraints. It has tried to maintain a surveillance state in the face of considerable challenges from both individuals and organizations. Detroit has gone bankrupt; bridges have collapsed in Washington state and Arizona; thousands in New York and New Jersey are still homeless after last year’s Hurricane Sandy; gun violence annually claims tens of thousands of lives.
And on the issues where the world truly needs leadership - global warming, global poverty, global militarism - the United States is either out to lunch or very much part of the problem.
An aging chief executive who resists calls for retirement will often whip out his trump card: après moi, le deluge! In other words, if the top person goes, whatever their vices might be, the organization will collapse because no one else can provide effective leadership.
The United States frequently resorts to this kind of argument. In Asia, for instance, the U.S. military bills itself as the only force that prevents China, Japan, the two Koreas, and the various claimants to the South China Sea islands from tearing out each other’s throats. Afghanistan, we are told, will fall to the Taliban without U.S. assistance. U.S. drone warfare, worldwide surveillance, and “overseas contingency operations,” according to Washington, are the only things between al-Qaeda and global domination.
Whether the U.S. military and U.S. corporations are a force for stability or instability is a question I’ll leave to future debate. But to extend the retirement metaphor, responsible executives prepare for their own eventual - and inevitable - retirement by preparing others to fill the shoes. Empires, of course, never do this. They simply collapse and thereby cause tremendous chaos.
But the United States is not a typical empire. Perhaps it can distinguish itself in this one additional category: legacy.
Imagine if the United States helped to refashion current institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank to reflect the current geopolitical balance of power instead of the realities of the immediate post-World War II era. Imagine if the United States helped to create a new global mechanism devoted to penalizing countries for high rates of military spending and rewarding them for increasing their budgets to address poverty and climate change. Imagine if the United States sat down with China to talk about how the two leading world economies can work together on global problems rather than at cross-purposes.
If the United States were to change its global behavior, it might discover that the calls for early retirement fade. Then, as a more cooperative international player, America could truly enjoy its imperial twilight in the sure knowledge that the deluge is not imminent.